The Cultural Significance of Costume Books in Sixteenth-Century Europe
Costume books, that is, books consisting of a series of woodcuts or etchings representing persons in native dress from all over the world, have so far received very limited attention in modern scholarship. The few existing studies consider these books - a genre newly emerging in the second half of the sixteenth century - simply as a historical source: They list the various examples, examine the interrelation between their contents, value them as an early testimony for the interest in non-European dress or use their plates as a means of ascertaining the veracity of other specific representations of dress in the arts. The present essay is an attempt to investigate the function these costume books may have had in their time. How do they link the fabric of cloth to the fabric of contemporary society? How do they generate a general classification of the human race, divided according to criteria such as social status, (presumed) character or origin of the individual? One further question here is related to a topic also explored in the other papers of this section: How does dress work in the context of nation-building and how do costume books help to create or strengthen ideas of national identity? I will attempt to answer this whole complex of issues by a close examination of the 'working order' of these books, i.e. by analysing their inner structure, the way their images are presented and connected with a relative, explanatory text. Before doing so, I should like to make a few general observations about these books and their significance.